The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Pytho's Mask
By: Emily Short
Reviews can be roughly divided into two groups: those that examine the game as a whole, and those that dig, in-depth, into portions of the game. The first kind attempts to inform the prospective reader of a piece whether it is worth her time or not. Consequently, they must remain as vague as possible, in order not to spoil the enjoyment of the reader. The second kind analyses a piece, or some or one of its aspects in detail, trying to examine what can be learned from its successes and failures. These reviews presuppose that their reader is familiar with the piece, and does not hold back on 'spoilers'.
This review belongs to the second class. If you have not played Short's "Pytho's Mask", not only may the review make little sense to you, it will also detract immensely from your future enjoyment of the game. Be warned. (Reading parts I and II, however, is perfectly safe.)
Any typology of puzzles in Interactive Fiction will fail to convey the wide diversity that is found in actual games, so it is with this caveat that I will now speak about three types of puzzles.
First, there are puzzles of complexity. Here, the player has all the information needed to solve the problem; and in addition, she could, given enough time and determination, write down all the possible moves and thus arrive at the solution. The challenge comes from the complexity of the puzzle: because there are so many moves the player can take, simply brute forcing her way through it is impractical. Instead, she must, by a combination of systematic thought and intuition, figure out the path that leads to the solution. Chess problems are puzzles of complexity: one knows everything, one could write down all possible series of moves, and yet they can be extremely challenging. In Interactive Fiction, puzzles of complexity are more often found in graphical adventures than it text based games; the open-ended nature of parser based IF is perhaps not the best medium for presenting this type of puzzle.
Secondly, there are puzzles of association. Here, the player knows, in principle, everything she has to know in order to solve the puzzle; but she must make an associative connection between different things she has found in the game in order to solve the puzzle. You know you have a plastic tube you'd love to break; you know there is a heavy lawn roller in the garden; you know, of course, that anything that is a bit fragile breaks when you push a lawn roller over it - and all you have to do is make the association between these three bits of knowledge. Well, and hope that the author has implemented your solution, of course. Puzzles of association are extremely common in interactive fiction.
Finally, there are puzzles of exploration. Here, the main task of the player is to get enough information, by looking for it in the right places. If the information does not straightforwardly solve the problem, the player may have to use deductive or abductive reasoning to arrive at the sought-for answer. Puzzles of exploration are the heart and soul of the detective genre: by amassing clues, the detective slowly gets enough information to solve the murder. It is a kind of puzzle that is very appealing, but it is hard to implement interesting puzzles of exploration well in a piece of Interactive Fiction.
Part of the problem lies in the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. In puzzles of complexity and puzzles of association, there is no reason that the protagonist might not hit on the solution at any particular moment. Whether by dumb luck or by a sudden flash of insight, he may suddenly see the solution to the demonically complex chess puzzle, or may suddenly realise that putting the hen in the bucket, setting the dial to twelve and pressing the red button with the hypnotised snake will open the count's coffin. This means that there are no mimetic reasons to stop the player from typing the winning combination of commands at the very moment the puzzle presents itself.
But the same does not hold for puzzles of exploration. Suppose that there is a hidden safe, the combination of which is written in the back of one of the books in the library. Now, if the player knows, from a previous game or a walkthrough, what the hidden combination is, she can try to open the safe without ever having examined the book. But it is wildly implausible that the protagonist would correctly guess the twenty-digit code on his very first try. This, of course, is a serious break of mimesis.
One possible solution to this problem is to simply bite the bullet: yes, if the player already has the required knowledge, she can complete the game in a way that generates a very implausible story indeed. This may lessen the game's success as a program for generating a compelling narrative, but at least it saves the player who restarts the game for the fifth time the trouble of going through all the steps again.
A second possible solution is to ensure that the player cannot have the required knowledge without taking the desired actions: by randomising the answer, the author ensures that the player must find it out anew each time she play the game. If the twenty-digit code is different each time you restart the game, you'll be forced to examine the book each time. This secures the plausibility of the unfolding narrative, but it can become a major source of irritation for the player as she has to prove again and again that she knows how the puzzle is to be solved.
Another way to achieve the same result would be by somehow stopping the player from attempting to solve the puzzle before the necessary 'in game' steps are taken. Perhaps the player gets a message "you don't know the code yet!", when she tries to open the safe before examining the book. Less crudely, there might be someone in the room with the safe who only leaves after the protagonist has examined the book. Even more subtly, by connecting exploratory moves and plot progression, all of this can be done so niftily that the manipulation fades into the background, and the player accepts it unquestioningly.
But the best way to solve the problem is, perhaps, to prevent it from occurring. Not all mysteries require the uncovering of a certain set of hard facts before an educated guess at the solution can be made. A murder case, for instance, is not like a safe code: there is generally no particular moment in which you get the 'final' clue you need - the very first information you uncover may already give you a very strong suspicion. Some puzzles of exploration, then, can allow you to gather as much information as you would like to have, leaving it up to you to decide you have enough to state the solution. Hercule Poirot, in the stories of Agatha Christie, does not wait until he has a logically irrefutable proof of guilt - such things do not exist. He waits until he is sure enough, at which point he gets all the suspects together and accuses one of them of having committed the crime. This is the kind of puzzle of exploration that would be most satisfying in Interactive Fiction, it seems. I will call these puzzles 'intuitable puzzles of exploration', since the protagonist can skip large parts of the exploratory process by having a strong intuition.
With Pytho's Mask, Emily Short has attempted to create a complex puzzle of exploration that conforms to this last option. The protagonist, a young lady called Soteria, is sent to an important party at the court of the dying King where she has to make contact with the Court Physician. From the start, the game is almost entirely about exploration, and the player is given a lot of freedom as to which depth she would like to take this exploration. One can either ask everybody about every topic that comes to mind, or one can only talk about the most important topics.
The conversation system plays in interesting role here. On the one hand, there are menus with predefined options; these lead you through some of the more important topics, and ensure that you learn enough of the background to have at least an idea about what is going on. It would take determination on the part of the player to fail to learn what the coming of the Comet means, to get some glimpses of the quaint cosmology that underlies the fictional world, and to learn at least some basic facts about the important characters. But on the other hand, the player is encouraged to think up topics of conversation herself, and explore avenues that are not explicitly pointed to by the author. And thus, it takes some creativity and perseverance to learn more of the personalities, relations and events that form the background of the central plot: getting information becomes a bit of a challenge, which is necessary when one wants to create a satisfying puzzle of exploration.
So, the depth of exploration is mostly chosen by the player; this ensures that, on a replay, she can concentrate on finding out more about those parts of the story that she did not quite understand previously. And this is a good thing, since it is all too easy to miss important information. This reveals a problem with intuitable puzzles of exploration: when the author gives players the freedom to skip parts of the exploratory process, they may miss these parts inadvertently. One can play Pytho's Mask and never find out about the plot until one can no longer do anything about it; one can play it and only learn that the prince is the masked man through the epilogue; one can complete it without ever having heard anything that implicates the earth minister. All of these, in fact, happened to me.
This problem is not insoluble. If the player is aware of the mystery she has to solve, and if it is also clear to her what she has to know before she can be said to have solved the mystery, she can go on searching for information until she has satisfied herself that she know everything she has to know. Unfortunately, Pytho's Mask does not make all the requirements for its solution perfectly clear at the appropriate point in the game. It is possible to get into a situation where no solution can be reached any more before one even knows what the plot is; one can finish the game without knowing that the identity of the masked man can be found out before the end; one can finish it before learning that more than one person is involved in the plot. Perhaps, in each of these cases, the player has failed to solve the puzzle. But if so, it is not because she has hit on the wrong solution, but because she did not know what puzzle she needed to solve. This makes for a distinctly less satisfying play experience.
Another problem that may rear its head when a game is based around a big puzzle of exploration is that it missing a driving force: there is no plot to speak of, as the game world is simply waiting for the player the reach a decision about the problem's solution. This can give the game an unfocused and slow feel.
Emily Short solves this problem admirably and in the simplest way possible: new areas are only opened for exploration after new stages in the plot have been reached. One cannot get to the prince before one has spoken to the Court Physician; one cannot get to the Earth Minister, the fortune teller, or the cups on the table before on has danced with the prince. This trick is of course well known, but in Pytho's Mask these manipulations are seamlessly integrated into the plot, hiding the authorial force that is involved in them.
How does Pytho's Mask fare as an implementation of a puzzle of exploration? Short has chosen to do it the hard way, by making an intuitable puzzle of exploration. Strong points are the seamless integration of story progression and exploration, and especially the innovative conversation system that is perfectly suitable for explorations of variable depth that require some attention and creativity to yield all valuable information. Weaker, and therefore just as interesting for future authors, is the way the boundaries of the puzzle that is to be solved are presented to the player: it is all too easy to believe that you have guessed the solution and proceed to the end, while you have not even found out what solution's you ought to be guessing. It is even possible to proceed to the end before finding out that you have influence over the final outcome of the story. This teaches us that it is important to make clear to the reader what the mystery actually is, because otherwise, she cannot make an informed decision about whether she knows enough to proceed or not.
These would be my parting words on Pytho's Mask were it not for one additional, and more fundamental, quarrel I have with the game: it does not make clear enough that it is a puzzle of exploration in the first place.
Not every piece of interactive fiction that requires careful and creative exploration is a puzzle of exploration, because it need not be a puzzle. By definition, a puzzle has a set of possible solution, of which a proper subset are actual solutions, the rest being wrong. If each possible solution is as good as any other, there is no puzzle at all. In a detective game, if the player does not have to point out which character is guilty - finding out whether she is right or wrong after having done so - there simply is no puzzle. There may still be a mystery, but one does not have to solve it.
In Pytho's Mask, there is certainly a mystery, and getting to the bottom of it is interesting in its own right. But it is the final stage of the game, where Soteria can switch two of the cups on the table, that the mystery turns into a puzzle. The player can only make the right switch when she has first found out which of the guests wants to kill the King. Switching the cups is the equivalent of Poirot's accusing the murderer; it is the moment the player boldly states her guess, and is proven right or wrong.
And all of this would be perfectly all right, were it not for the fact that the player does not know that she has proved that she has solved the puzzle. Given the situation of intrigue, where most characters scheme for their own interests; given, also, the fact that the aims of Soteria are left up to the player to decide; and given, finally, the open-ended nature of the situation, in which 'anything and everything' might happen - given all these things, it is very natural for the reader to believe that the switching of the cups is not an opportunity for her to prove that she has solved the puzzle, but rather an opportunity for her to choose sides and decide the fate of the kingdom. Emily Short asks the player to show that she has found the solution; but the player may very well believe that she has been asked to make a moral or aesthetic choice.
The player may have come to the conclusion that the Prince ought to rule in the king's place, and therefore switches the king's cup with the prince's. Unfortunately for her, the game interprets this as a failed attempt to solve the puzzle, and tells her that "things have gone awry". Similar things could be said for most other switches: a player who believes that she has been asked to decide the fate of the kingdom will be roughly disabused of this illusion by what is clearly a suboptimal ending. Even when one chooses to team up with Lord Valkir, the ending is clearly suboptimal. Especially galling is the ending when one has chosen to drink the king's cup oneself - who knows what deep reason the player may have had for doing this, only to be treated as a fool? Imagine that a player chose to drink the king's cup because her own change would be the only one that did not destabilise the kingdom? Such a beautiful motive, so brutally crushed.
Emily Short leaves the reader no room to make her own decisions, instead forcing her to accept one single course of action as the best one. This would not be a problem if it were clear from the outset that the player had a puzzle to solve. But it is not, and the many intriguing NPCs are engaging enough that finds oneself automatically taking sides, and, therefore, wants to influence the story in the favour of those NPCs. Ironically, Pytho's Mask may in the end be the victim of its own success: in your run of the mill detective story, the detective has no reason to want anyone but the killer to be jailed; but in Pytho's Mask, the player may have many motivations to want one of the NPCs to succeed.
Finally, then, the lesson Pytho's Mask is most of all that it is very, very important to make sure that the reader knows what is expected of her. A piece that does not give a clue whether its final scene is the decisive move in a complicated puzzle or an opportunity for choice in an even more complicated moral situation will always leave some readers disappointed.